A WW2 era B-17 Flying FOrtress bomber called Texas Raiders. Photo Credit: Peter Willott the Record

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While there’s no shortage of World War II museum pieces to be found around the world, there aren’t many “flying museums” like the one in St. Augustine this week.

One of the fewer than a dozen operating B-17 aircraft from the World War II era is on display in St. Augustine. In fact, the “Flying Fortress” will even take to the skies once a day.

The visit here is part of the Commemorative Air Force Gulf Coast Wing effort to share some of the working relics from America’s military past.

Those wishing to climb aboard the plane, which is being kept at the Northeast Florida Regional Airport, can do so for $10 (or $5 for children, $20 for a family of up to five). A 25-minute ride costs $475 and up. The plane will be in St. Augustine through Thursday.

According to Boeing, more than 12,000 of the bombers were built between 1935 and 1945. When World War II ended, most of the aircraft were sold off or scrapped, which is one of the reasons why there are so few around today. The B-17E, the first mass-produced model Flying Fortress, carried nine machine guns and a 4,000-pound bomb load.

The B-17 here is named Texas Raiders, a B-17G, and it was manufactured by Douglas Aircraft Corporation at Long Beach, California, under license from Boeing. It did not fly any combat missions in World War II as it was delivered in July 1945. However, it did fly radar missions in the Korean War.

Visitors tend to be interested in the B-17 because of their interest in history. Often, the history they care about is very personal. “We love to introduce people to our aircraft,” said Nancy Kwiecien, Gulf Coast Wing executive officer. “Our greatest honor is to meet veterans who flew her.”

She said the first visitor Tuesday was local veteran Earl Douglass, who flew 30 combat missions against the Germans, usually in the tail gun position of a B-17. Although there aren’t a lot of veterans left from World War II, Texas Raiders pilot Len Root and flight crew member Kevin Michels said it’s always a special experience to meet them.

Michels said he remembers one veteran getting out of his wheelchair and kissing the plane. Apparently, he had flown 23 missions on a B-17 and was shot down in the last one. The plane was able to hold together well enough to allow a crash landing — as opposed to simply crashing.

“He credited that plane with saving his life,” Michels said. Another veteran came and took a ride with his son, Root recalled. He said the son came back the next day and “about shakes my arm off.” Root said the son was so excited because the flight triggered something in his father that allowed him to finally share his war experience after decades of silence. “That’s what we’re about,” Root said.

For those who get to fly the Texas Raiders, it’s quite a privilege. Root, an American Airlines pilot, said he was first kind of brushed off by the old guard years ago but eventually joined the crew when he received an invitation to be a flight engineer. He did that for two years before eventually working his way up to pilot. It’s considerably different from flying most modern planes, so there’s a lot of training involved. The most difficult part might be getting used to the taxiing process with the third set of wheels in the tail of the plane rather than the nose.

There’s also a lack of hydraulic controls, so there’s more physical demands on the flight crew.

“It’s quite a process but there are lots of pilots who want to do it,” Kwiecien said. “Generally, these are men and women who admire the war bird community anyway, and they’re fans of (the) mission. They may be aviators by trade, but they also support the historic mission of (the Commemorative Air Force).”

Added Root: “She’s a joy to fly. I smile every time I fly.” Even those who won’t be passengers on the B-17 should get a unique experience, Michels said. While there are a few modifications, the Texas Raiders is configured much like it was in the 1940s. Details down to the hookups for the crew’s heated flight suits have been retained.

“We take great pride in the accuracy of our aircraft,” Michels said.